When You Finish Saving the World
2023, R, 88 min. Directed by Jesse Eisenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Finn Wolfhard, Alisha Boe, Billy Bryk, Jay O. Sanders.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 20, 2023
Films can suffer from unfortunate release timing. So it's not really the fault of When You Finish Saving the World that it's coming out a week after Twitter rightly mauled the insufferable post-emo piffle of Hobo Johnson's Tiny Desk Concert for NPR. Just insufferable, whining, self-aggrandizing, self-pitying garbage that resonates with the electrofolk garbage produced by spoiled middle-class brat Ziggy Katz (Wolfhard), who is some kind of social media famous – 20,000 followers, as he consistently yelps to his schoolmates and streaming audience.
It's a shame, because the film is arguably more akin to the recent adaptation of Don DeLillo's White Noise, both being peculiar and oddly self-absorbed rehashings of previous works so of their moment that revisiting them seems oddly redundant.
The source work here is writer/director Jesse Eisenberg's own award-winning Audible Original drama of the same name, a three-hander featuring a family at three stages of their shared and disconnected lives over a decade. The film version (shot through that mucky brown miasma that has become movie shorthand for "the Midwest") strips out that structure. Instead, it concentrates on high school Ziggy and his constant passive-aggressive clashes with his mother, Evelyn (Moore), a social worker in a shelter for abused women. She's prim and self-obsessed, he's angsty and self-obsessed, and they're both obliviously manipulative of other people. In his case, it's Lila (Boe), the idealizable young radical and poet over whom he is mooning; and for her it's Kyle (Bryk), the 17-year-old son of a shelter resident who she thinks she can mold into what she hoped Ziggy would be.
What it really comes down to is the audience's willingness to be stuck in a confined space – as claustrophobic as Evelyn's smart car, a source of constant laugh-at-the-posturing-progressives comedy – with some of the most irksome characters committed to film. It's not simply that they feel like pastiches undeserving of sympathy: Worse, they were characters that felt more fully fleshed out in the audio version. That's truest for Sanders as father and frustrated academic Roger (renamed, for some unknowable reason, from Nathan), who becomes a background character. That's a significant change, since the audio drama's structure of interlocking diaries/confessionals recorded by the three characters emphasized that sense of tragic disassociation and longing.
The simplification to fit into the tauter film version strips away much of the nuance and replaces it with a message about intergenerational disconnect that verges on trite. Their final, inevitable, independent but simultaneous acts of coming to understand and appreciate each other's woes wash away so much of what made the original version so intriguing, their interlocking neuroses replaced by an underwhelming slip into movie of the week territory. The decline is alleviated by a momentary sense of schadenfreude at the sources of their newfound self-awareness. However, watching two irksome characters fall into a new co-dependence (all at the expense of other characters) is scarcely the emotional victory that Eisenberg presents it as.